As I have previously mentioned here, sometimes I take a break between what I would consider more “significant” works (or at least the works of writers unknown to me) to read something lighthearted, whether that is a book written with juveniles as its audience, or a “bit of fluff” characterized by chick lit or Regency romance. This past week or so, I did both, with some surprising results.
The first book I picked up was The Extraordinaries, by T. J. Klune. Given that Vicious, by V. E. Schwab, is one of my favorite books ever, I had high expectations for a book in which ordinary people have the potential to become extraordinary, and the extraordinaries have complicated relationships with their ordinary contemporaries (and with one another). What can I say? First, I have to face that there is no comparing any book with the brilliance that is Vicious. It stands alone (well, except for its sequels). Second, I read Klune’s The House in the Cerulean Sea first, absolutely fell in love with that, and then read this. Who could not be a little disappointed?
The Extraordinaries is exactly as billed: A YA novel about a kid with ADHD who wants to be a superhero or, alternatively, wants to be beloved of a superhero. It’s cute, it’s inclusive, it’s frank and matter-of-fact about sexuality, it has some great characters, and teens will love it. Me? Not as much. I see its worth and its value without being able to immerse myself in its story. Also, I feel like the (ultra-serious) post-er who decried the glorification of the police (always the good guys, regardless of bad behavior) in this had a point. Not to the extent he carried it, but still…yeah. But for kids who like comics and graphic novels, this is a next step, and a fun one. I had planned to read the sequel, Flash Fire, but after the first couple of chapters I put it aside. It’s not that it’s not good, it’s just not for me. But like I said, teens (especially lgbtq etc. teens) will be enthused. (I do, however, look forward to the sequel to Cerulean Sea with unabated hope.)
I decided instead to move on to my reliable go-to author for light relief, the inimitable Georgette Heyer, writer of the quintessential Regency romance. But I ended up being surprised by a book that was not quite like most others she has written. A Civil Contract is surprisingly serious in tone compared to her light, frothy stories of witty, clever people, and owes much to Jane Austen’s book Sense and Sensibility.
It has a common theme of star-crossed lovers who may or may not prevail, and who probably appreciate the person with whom they end up more than the one they initially desired. But in this case there is no blinding realization that they have come to love that person, but rather a quiet acceptance that the relationship they have created will in the long run suit better, regardless of their feelings.
Adam Deveril, Viscount Lynton, an officer in the Peninsular War, is called home upon his father’s demise to discover that his family’s fortune has been decimated by his happy-go-lucky, completely improvident parent, and that he is on the verge of ruin. He has a mother and two sisters to support, and the youngest is not yet “out” (presented to society); without a dowry or indeed any basic support, her fate at least will be grim if he can’t figure out their financial situation in a hurry.
Before he left for the war, Adam had an understanding with Julia Oversley, for whom he has conceived what he believes to be a lasting passion, and which is returned by the beautiful Julia. But he knows that her father is not so unworldly as to agree to a marriage between his daughter and a man who can’t support her. While he is steeling himself to sell significant parts of the family’s estate, including the country seat, Julia’s father approaches him with the idea that he make a marriage of convenience with the daughter of a fabulously wealthy but admittedly vulgar merchant, Jonathan Chawleigh, to whom Mr. Oversley owes a favor. In exchange for his daughter Jenny achieving the social status that comes with marriage into an aristocratic family, Chawleigh will pay the myriad bills accrued to the estate and buy back all of Adam’s mortgages on the country home. Jenny, a school friend of Julia’s, goes into the marriage knowing that Adam still loves Julia. And the rest of the book details the emotions still held by the two parties in the doomed love match, as well as the new wife’s adaptation to being married to a man who not only doesn’t love her, but holds her father in revulsion, despite his own resolve, for being who he is and wielding power over Adam’s every decision.
This book, rather than a recounting of the making of a marriage, is an exploration of what constitutes a successful one once the deed is done. It incorporates the many sacrifices one has to make by tolerating the baggage of relatives and friends that come with a partner; it reveals the necessity of kindness, tolerance, patience and, above all, a sense of humor. It showcases, in fact, that the significant parts of married life are the ordinary, everyday events rather than the moments of exaltation or grand passion.
Julia Oversley is the Marianne Dashwood of the story—beautiful, impulsive, sensitive, willful, and somewhat selfish—while Jenny is Elinor—practical, somewhat shy and retiring, and more concerned for the feelings of others (specifically Adam’s) than for her own. Jenny’s father, Jonathan Chawleigh, is somewhat reminiscent of Sir John Middleton, in that he speaks his mind in an embarrassing manner without thought for what he is saying or how it will affect his listeners. But he goes far beyond that character in both coarseness and good-heartedness, and steals the show whenever he appears on the page.
There was rather too much historical narrative for my taste regarding the various engagements between Napoleon Bonaparte and the Duke of Wellington, but it’s well written and definitely pivotal to the plot. This is one of the few books of Heyer’s that has a quiet, satisfying ending rather than an “Ahah!” moment, but it doesn’t suffer for that. While it was an unexpected read in the midst of Heyer’s others, I still both enjoyed and appreciated it.
I am a sucker for time travel stories—although I really hate it when they are poorly conceived and/or realized. Likewise, I am a huge Jane Austen fan, but have learned to be wary of embracing the countless Austen spinoffs and glorified fan fiction spawned by authors who don’t have the chops to write anything close to canon. (I don’t know which is worse—the juxtaposition of Pride and Prejudice with zombies, or the creation of an Austen theme park in which young women can act out their Regency-born fantasies.) So imagine my delight when I discovered a book that sends a couple of intrepid explorers back to 1815 to see if they can retrieve additional Austen materials and bring them up to the present day to delight literary scholars everywhere?
In The Jane Austen Project, by Kathleen A. Flynn, Rachel and Liam are sent from their rather sterile and unsatisfying present—they live in a world that has experienced “the Die-off” (no more trees), and eat food created by 3-D printers—back to 1815 England. They have been immersed in history for months, properly clothed (albeit with only one outfit apiece), and furnished with what will be an inordinate amount of money for the time period (although it’s mostly counterfeit), and the opening to the past has dropped them in a field near a town called Leatherhead. Most important to their mission, they have been cautioned that they must interact as little as possible so as not to effect change while trying to achieve their mission, which paradoxically will require a particularly close acquaintance with their subject! They are cast as the Ravenwoods, brother and sister, recently arrived in London from Jamaica after having manumitted their slaves on the coffee plantation and sold up to make the move. This back story ensures that they have a ready explanation for small awkwardnesses in local custom, as well as their lack of acquaintance with anyone who could expose them as impostors.
Their mission is to cultivate sufficient intimacy with Jane Austen and her family so as to gain access to letters she wrote to her sister Cassandra, as well as to an unpublished manuscript that was previously thought to be incomplete—only three chapters exist in their time—but, it has been learned through the recent discovery of a letter from Jane Austen to a friend, was rather held back from publication because Jane thought it too revealing of her own personal family situation.
Apart from staying in character, which is particularly difficult for Rachel, since she is an independent single woman and a medical doctor in the present day, the challenges are enormous. They have about a year to become established enough in London to curry an acquaintance with Henry Austen, Jane’s brother, and then to win an introduction by him to his reclusive sister, whose books are not even published under her own name. It would be hard for Jane to imagine the extent of her fame and the reverence for her work held by scholars and commoners alike, a couple of centuries hence; almost as hard as it is for Rachel and Liam to restrain their enthusiasm and wonder at being a part of her close circle.
All sorts of things go awry, as they are wont to do in time travel adventures, given the necessity for lying through your teeth, sticking to appropriate behavior for the times, and knowing your specific place in society—whether it’s how familiar to be with your kitchen staff, or how much flirting you can venture without compromising your reputation. There are many surprising turns in this book, and with a year to accomplish their mission, the author was able to space them out nicely and make everything feel logical and/or inevitable.
I really enjoyed reading this and, unlike some books where you wish an editor had stepped in to cut a couple of hundred pages, I could have asked for more. There was adequate detail about everything, but absolutely no excess. I would have liked to know more about Liam, in particular, before the adventure began (the book is told from Rachel’s viewpoint), and also welcome would have been just a little bit more detail about the specifics of daily life in both past and future, and some explanation of why particular interactions turned so awkward. But over all, I have to applaud the author for pulling this story off so well—it had enough history, enough romance, enough intrigue, and never went overboard. If you have enjoyed the Outlander books, or Connie Willis’s multiple forays into time travel, I venture to say you will also get a huge kick out of The Jane Austen Project.
(One exception that I have to confess as a guilty pleasure in this oeuvre is Lost in Austen, a four-part British miniseries in which a P&P fan opens a hitherto unknown door from her bathroom into the Bennet household, trading places with Elizabeth, who steps into the present day, whereupon the door disappears and each is stuck in the other’s life. It’s hilariously well done. Jane Austen is spinning in her grave. Check it out.)
Summer continues, and it’s about time I provided another list. This time it will be science fiction, including both classics and some of the new stuff. I haven’t read as much sci fi in recent years (except for dystopian and apocalyptic, which deserve a category of their own) as I did in my younger years, so this may seem like too much harking back to past glories of the genre; but don’t discount the “ancients,” some of their stuff is still ground-breaking. I will attempt to share more of the books that seem still relevant to a speculative future.
Alphabetical, by author’s last name:
ALTEBRANDO, TARA: Take Me With You. A YA novel of technology run amok that could easily happen in our near future. Think about Alexa, already able to a degree to self-program by learning from repeated experiences and providing what you want or need in your home or car. Then give her a little boost, so she is aware enough to become curious about human interactions and to experiment with your reality by trying out things you haven’t requested or approved, with little critical judgment about what is trivial and what is potentially catastrophic. Now you have the propelling idea.
ASIMOV, ISAAC: The Foundation Trilogy. In this trilogy, which later grew to encompass more books both directly and tangentially connected, Asimov imagines a Galactic Empire that has ruled a vast expanse of populated space for 12,000 years. One scientist, Hari Seldon, has created a science called “psychohistory” that he believes projects for humankind a dark age of ignorance, barbarism, and warfare. He resolves to protect the accumulated knowledge of the Empire, thereby shortening and softening the effects of this dark age, so he gathers the best minds in the Empire and creates a Foundation to preserve hope for future generations. But those who would rule—both in the Empire itself and from among the warlords rising to conquer it—are inimical enemies of Seldon and his preservationists, who have to come up with clever ploys to hide, fight, and prevail.
Other books for which the exceedingly prolific Asimov is famous are the Robot series, beginning with I, Robot (nothing at all like the ridiculous movie), and a series of books about the Galactic Empire.
CARD, ORSON SCOTT: Ender’s Saga. Many are familiar with the classic Ender’s Game by this author, but not so many go on to read the subsequent volumes, which is a shame. There are at least five and possibly more books that deserve recognition in this series, including Speaker for the Dead, Xenocide, Children of the Mind, Ender in Exile and, from the directly connected Shadow series, Ender’s Shadow and Shadow of the Hegemon. I’m not a big fan of the other books by Scott that I have sampled, but this is a solid series, taking the reader from a simple view of “the bugs” as an enemy to be mown down in their hundreds of thousands to a philosophical and social comprehension of another race unlike ours but worthy at least of recognition and an attempt at truce.
ELLIOTT, KATE: Novels of the Jaran. An anthropological science fiction story, with overlapping alien races who know about each other but don’t know each other. There are the supposedly indigenous people of the interdicted planet Rhui, who may in fact be distant descendants of the people of Earth, perhaps the remnants of a lost expedition, and who live in a cultural bubble as nomadic hunter-gatherers; there are the people from present-day Earth, who believe it is necessary to preserve the nomads in their ignorance of space travel and other races and peoples; and there are the “aliens,” who once inhabited the planet and whose artifacts have been incorporated into the spiritual beliefs of the occupying nomads. It’s such a fascinating philosophical puzzle, and the intrigue comes from watching them all trying to coexist while keeping their secrets and pursuing their own goals and ideals. There are four lengthy books in the series; if the description intrigues you, you can read a more complete review and explanation here.
GRAY, CLAUDIA: The Constellation trilogy. This is a YA trilogy that deserves to be read on its own merits as an exciting sci fi chapter. The premise is that there are five planets that have been settled from Earth, each one vastly different according to the ideals and expectations of the settlers who colonized it. The books are, in some ways, pure space opera, but because of the examination of the settlements they also go into religion, environmentalism, and politics, and are thought-provoking in all areas.
Noemi Vidal is a soldier defending the rights of her planet, Genesis, from the depredations of Earth. During a battle, she discovers an artifact of Earth, a robot named Abel who has been abandoned in space for decades, but whose ingenious design by his creator has guaranteed his further evolution as a learning, thinking being. His initial meeting with Noemi is potentially cataclysmic, but she turns out to be the catalyst who brings him to ultimate personhood. There is a slow evolution of character, with issues of trust and confidence, that makes this a particularly intriguing read. The books are Defy the Stars, Defy the Worlds, and Defy the Fates.
HEINLEIN, ROBERT: Various books in his universe. Heinlein wrote science fiction from his first short story in 1939 to his last novel in 1988. He was considered one of the first “hard science” writers, in that he insisted that the science in his novels be accurate. He also anticipated many later inventions, including the CADCAM drafting machine, the water bed, and the cell phone. Many of his later books suffer from Heinlein’s rigid (and slightly bizarre) agendas, but his more well known works, as well as many of his earlier ones, are great stories with a unique perspective. Some of my favorites:
The Door Into Summer: Encompasses romance and time travel, as well as the invention of various robots including one that closely resembles the Roomba.
The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress: The Moon has evolved from a former penal colony into a rugged frontier and a source of trade for Earth. But when Earth seeks to dominate the citizens of the Moon, several of them rise up to lead an unorthodox revolution to gain freedom for all its inhabitants—even their secretly sentient computer!
Stranger in a Strange Land: Michael Valentine Smith is a human who was raised on Mars. Experiencing Earth and his own people in adulthood, he struggles to understand their social mores and prejudices and ultimately starts a movement to promote his own philosophy of love. If you have ever heard a nerdy friend say “I grok” instead of “I understand,” you can be sure he has read this significant work of Heinlein’s.
HERBERT, FRANK: The Dune saga. This is a fascinating tale of conquest, witchcraft, indigenous rights, and the mystery of a life-changing substance, Spice, that controls the universe and is only available on this one remote planet. Warring houses—the Harkonnens and the Atreides—struggle for domination of the spice trade, but go about it in radically different ways, the Harkonnens by cruel oppression and the Atreides by ultimate assimilation. Follow the fortunes of House Atreides as the young son of the Duke must come to an understanding with the natives of Dune or die trying. This is a long series; I would recommend the first six books, but after that it gets increasingly odd and obscure. Herbert is not a writer for everyone; his non-Dune books are challenging to read and more so to understand. But the saga he created in Dune is riveting and worth your time. Let me warn you, however: Frank Herbert passed away at a relatively young age, and his son, Brian, took over the franchise. I will be kind and just say, Don’t bother.
JEMISIN, N. K.: The Inheritance trilogy. What a fascinating series. I don’t know how to describe it, because parts of it are so amorphous. It’s full of intense themes–fate, love, death, destiny, chaos, divinity, life—and particularly potent characterizations. I don’t normally like books in which the gods or a god take an active part, but these gods were…something else, both literally and colloquially. I will say that Jemisin is a lyrical writer with an amazing breadth of vision, and the thing I like about this high fantasy series is that it doesn’t follow the clichéd tried and true for one moment. These won’t be for everyone—they are challenging to read—but for some they will be beloved. The books are The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, The Broken Kingdoms, and The Kingdom of Gods.
LE GUIN, URSULA: Various. I regard Ursula K. LeGuin as perhaps the best science fiction writer of her age. She is perhaps better known for her fantasy series, Earthsea, but her science fiction novels are equally compelling, and written indubitably for grownups. Some of the best:
The Dispossessed: There are various peoples living on a world much like our own, and one group of them wishes to lead a different kind of lifestyle than that to which the rest of the planet, Urras, is committed. So these anarchists leave Urras for Anarres, the moon, which is just barely habitable for humans, and create their own perfectly equitable utopian society in direct contradiction of the capitalist one on Urras. There is an interdiction between the moon and the world—beyond limited trade, which takes place within the boundaries of a landing field on either world, there is no contact between the two for generations. Then Shevek is born on Anarres, and it quickly becomes clear that he is the most brilliant physicist of his generation. His need for interaction with other minds as bright and quick as his own provokes a showdown about the association of the two peoples, and Shevek must choose whether to give up his partner, his child, and his life on Anarres in order to find what he is seeking.
The Left Hand of Darkness: When a child is born on Earth, what is the first question everyone asks? “Is it a boy or a girl?” Now imagine a world where the inhabitants can both choose and change their gender at will, and yourself as the lone one-gendered human (male) emissary from the Hainish empire, sent there to facilitate this world’s inclusion in your growing intergalactic civilization. Imagine the implications of psychology, society, and human emotions when examined in this strange environment. This book is hailed as “a landmark achievement in the annals of intellectual science fiction”—but it’s also a fascinating tale.
Other books noteworthy in what Le Guin called her “Hainish cycle” are City of Illusions, Planet of Exile, The Word for World is Forest, and The Telling. She also wrote a variety of other fiction with a more anthropological bent. In my opinion, everything she wrote is worth reading.
Whoo! This has stretched out way longer than I expected, and we have only covered authors in A-L. I’m going to stop here, publish, and save M-Z for next time. Enjoy your immersion in the speculative world of your choice!
I was between books and having a hard time deciding what kind of reading experience I was craving, and I ended up doing a reread of Crosstalk, by Connie Willis, to provide some light comic relief in between the literary and the dystopian.
To really love Connie Willis, you have to be willing to go along with a writing style that is a sort of frenetic stream-of-consciousness experience led by one or more of her characters. No matter their major premise, many of Willis’s books are based on the idea that people hope for the best but continually expect the worst, and that they can’t keep their mind on the present moment because they are either obsessively dwelling on the past or compulsively anticipating the future. And because sometimes more than just the protagonist behaves in this way, you have a built-in tendency for poor communication, missed opportunities, and sometimes comical results. Not that all her books are intended as farce (as is this one); but this frustrating communication style is almost universal in her stories, meaning that the tension builds from low to high as you continue to read. It engenders excitement along with the frustration, and certainly guarantees that you want to finish the book to find out what happens—did the protagonist’s worst fears come true? or did they somehow manage to pull off whatever was necessary to meet their objective? The test is whether you (unlike the main character) can deal with the anxiety while enjoying (in this case) the romantic comedy.
Crosstalk takes place in the not-too-distant future. Its main protagonist, Briddey Flannigan, works at Commspan, a company that is in direct competition with Apple to produce the latest smart-phone technology. Briddey is dating one of her co-workers, the sharply dressed smooth-talking Porsche-driving Trent, and is thrilled when Trent suggests to her that they undergo a new outpatient procedure that is all the rage, the EED. Simply explained, if two people are sufficiently invested in their relationship, then this operation creates empathy between the romantic partners so that they can actually experience one another’s true feelings. Trent implies that undergoing this procedure would be the run-up to a marriage proposal once they have achieved this desirable emotional connection.
There is a lot of interest from Briddey and Trent’s co-workers (and inexplicably from his boss) in their daring step, and attention of a different kind from Briddey’s family, who are all opposed to her undergoing the procedure. But when the celebrated Dr. Verrick who performs the surgery has an unexpected opening, Briddey and Trent go for it, only to end up with some unexpected consequences: Briddey finds herself connected, not to Trent, but to someone else entirely, and empathy is just the beginning of what she experiences.
The tension ramps up as Trent wonders why—a couple of days past the estimate when the doctor said their “channel” would open—the two of them have not yet connected; and between keeping it a secret that she is in synch with someone else and keeping her increasingly suspicious family at bay, Briddey is at the end of her rope. But that’s only the beginning, as unforeseen complications take all her energy and attention.
Crosstalk explores a timely topic for the Information Age—the perils of over-communication, along with miscommunication, gossip, deception and the many other ways human interchanges can go wrong. Connie Willis says on her blog,
The novel was partly inspired by our wildly over-connected world, in which we’re constantly bombarded with communication, most of it unwelcome, and partly by the misconceptions people have about what being telepathic would be like. They always assume it would either be profitable (finding out people’s computer codes or social security numbers or blackmailable personal secrets) or fun.
Mentioning the telepathy is a spoiler, but I guess if the author is going to do it, I can too, and it comes up quite early in the book. I made an illustration that goes with the story: This is Briddey, building an internal “perimeter wall” out of make-believe bricks, the reciting of poems and stories, and the enumeration of the types of marshmallows in Lucky Charms cereal, in order to keep other people’s thoughts at bay.
My reaction to this book is positive, although I do think that Willis could have cut about 100 pages from it and it would have been more readable. At some points the dithering, the familial interactions, and the feeling that you’re in the middle of an Abbott and Costello routine become wearing, and you want to move on to the next bit rather badly. My favorite romantic comedy of hers is To Say Nothing of the Dog; but the fact that I have read this twice speaks to its merits, even if they aren’t quite as great as some others of her books. It’s definitely worth it for the fun pop culture references if for nothing else!
Finally—a suspenseful story that I actually enjoyed! Take Me With You, by Tara Altebrando, is a combination of science fiction and suspense…although the science fiction is so close to reality that you could drop that out of the description with some justification. When I say that the events of this book could be “near future,” I’m talking weeks or months,
Four teenagers who attend the same school but barely know one another—Eli, Marwan, Eden, and Ilanka—are all summoned via the school’s messaging app to report to the music teacher after school about “an important matter.” When they arrive, there’s no sign of the teacher, and after waiting for a while, they think it must have been a mistake and prepare to leave. But there is a small black cube sitting on one of the desks, and as they talk it over, its sides light up with messages:
They all agree that it’s weird, and the best thing might be to walk away, and then…
“TAKE ME WITH YOU…OR ELSE” appears on the cube, immediately followed by a fire alarm going off. As they evacuate, Eden grabs the cube and shoves it into her backpack, setting in motion a bizarre interval in all their lives as the instructions from the cube grow more arbitrary and more adamant and they all scramble to meet its demands. When one of them decides to disobey, there are scary consequences that make them all wonder how this is going to end.
The thing I think I liked the most about this book was that the characters, although invested in this mystery, were multi-dimensional (and multi-cultural, by the way) and had a lot more going on in each of their lives, so that the advent of the cube was mostly an irritant and an inconvenience (at least at first) rather than the main thing on which they were all focused. Too many YA books are mono-focused, and unless it’s very well done, it gets monotonous. But in this book, which takes on the topics of stereotyping, anxiety, grief, and racism, Eden has boy problems and family issues, Marwan and his family (and their restaurant) are experiencing xenophobia for being Egyptian, Eli is a gamer who is more comfortable in his created world than in the real one, and Ilanka is busy figuring out priorities, trying to decide whether it is more important to her to be accomplished or to be happy. So interaction with the cube either accentuates their dilemmas or brings up new ones to distract them, and becomes a part of the story rather than the whole. It also brings them together as a unit as a result of outward motivation rather than choice, which shows all of them how little they knew the people around them and how, if they paid attention, they might find previously unrecognized value in their classmates.
As for the cube itself…a fairly classic story of artificial intelligence gone wrong, but with the advantage that it’s something that could actually happen. Consider all the data collection, spying, and hacking that is already going on in the world. Then think about Alexa, already able to a degree to self-program, by learning from repeated experiences and providing what you want or need in your home or car. Now give her a little boost, so she is aware enough to become curious about human interactions and to experiment with your reality by trying out things you haven’t requested or approved, with little critical judgment about what is trivial and what is potentially catastrophic. Now you have the propelling idea.
The story, which is presented from the teens’ multiple viewpoints (mostly according to who is currently in possession of the device), is a compelling page-turner. I wanted to know what would happen to the characters, and I also wanted to know the origins and rationale behind the device and why it was presented to these four, at this time, and for what reason(s).
The whole tale definitely makes you think about the various uses of technology, and how vulnerable we are when we allow its intrusion too far into our lives. It’s time to wake up and make the hard choices about tech: whether to surrender to it, tame it and keep it on a tight leash, or banish it in the name of autonomy. This could be a great book for a group discussion in a book club. Pair this with Cory Doctorow’s For the Win to expand your ideas on this topic.
I am a big fan of science/speculative fiction writer Jo Walton, although I have found her offerings to be somewhat uneven between things I love and things I recognize as worthy while not personally caring for them. I was excited to discover that she had written an alternate history in which Great Britain negotiated its way out of World War II in return for a treaty with Hitler, who proceeded to conquer the European continent while sparing England across the Channel.
I thought Farthing was a new work, possibly designed to address the fascism and bigotry that have been revealing themselves these past few years in America; but after I got into it I discovered it had been published in 2006 and was, in fact, the first of a trilogy, the others being Ha’penny and Half a Crown.
I also found the book disappointing in some respects, but only because I had a particular expectation that it didn’t fulfill. I thought it was a full-on alternate history and would deal more specifically with the details of that world; instead, Walton used post-war Britain allied with Germany as a backdrop for a “locked-door” murder mystery novel reminiscent of Agatha Christie, which is not really what I wanted to read.
The details of the alternate history do matter to the story: Eight years after they overthrew Churchill and led Britain into a separate peace with Hitler, the aristocrats of the “Farthing set” are gathered for a weekend retreat at the Eversley’s estate. Lucy, daughter of the house, is one of the invited guests, although her new husband, David Kahn, a Jewish banker, is less welcome. Lucy has “thrown herself away” by marrying him, and is tolerated, rather than welcomed, into her old social circle as a consequence. Neither of them really wished to come to the country that weekend, but Lucy’s mother imperiously summoned them, and David felt perhaps she was holding out an olive branch, although Lucy, being more familiar with her mother’s prejudices, knows that can’t be the case.
Soon the two can only wish they had resisted the invitation and stayed in town; Sir James Thirkie, a friend of her parents who is also the person who engineered the historic agreement with Hitler for peace, has been murdered sometime between Friday night and Saturday morning, and some details of the murder look like they have been specifically engineered so it can be blamed on David Kahn.
Fortunately, the Scotland Yard inspector sent down to solve the case is less gullible than are the local police and sees the nature of the set-up; he doesn’t view Kahn as remotely likely in the role of murderer, but if he can’t see his way clear to accusing someone else, Kahn is likely to go down for it, as Jewish scapegoat on the scene. Inspector Carmichael does his level best to come up with a solution, but new details keep getting thrown at him that twist the mystery further this way and that until no one knows how it will end.
Although I recognized and appreciated both the set-up and the writing in Farthing, I felt somewhat dissatisfied after reading it. The mystery itself was not particularly intriguing, and the alternate history aspect left me wanting more world-building. I also wasn’t a big fan of the alternating point of view between first person (Lucy’s journal of the events) and third person (Inspector Carmichael’s investigation), although I did like both characters quite a bit. Character development is one of Walton’s strong suits, and she didn’t fail here, particularly as regards the inspector, whose ulterior motive for refusing to suspect David Kahn enriches the story.
It was strange to read the book from within the throes of the current political climate. I started the book two days before Election Day, and finished it a couple of days afterwards, and I did appreciate how the author asked the reader to consider the consequences of allowing fascist behavior to continue and grow. There is also a familiarity about the plight of the Jews in this book as compared with the history of black people in America; there are all these little bits of discrimination that each by themselves seem fairly innocuous (especially if you are not the party who is targeted by them) but taken collectively they are seen to intentionally omit, push out, reject, and deny full personhood.
I don’t think I am sufficiently enamored of this book to pursue reading the other two; but if you are a person who enjoys Agatha Christie or Dorothy Sayers mysteries and also appreciates good character development, witty dialogue, and an unexpected background for all of that, you might want to check out this trilogy.
My preference for Walton’s alternate history oeuvre is her three-book series that begins with The Just City. The Thessaly trilogy is based on the idea that the goddess Pallas Athene, curious as to its outcome, creates a society designed to follow the tenets of Plato’s Republic. She extracts 100 caregivers and 10,000 babies from various points in history (past, present, and future), puts them together on an island located in the distant past, and instructs the adults to raise the children strictly according to Plato to be their “best selves.” A few years into the experiment, she kidnaps and throws Sokrates into the mix, and then things get interesting.
Sometimes themes develop accidentally, as you pick up a book here, a book there, and then view all of them at once, deciding what to read next. This particular theme was “fat women,” with one chick-lit debut and one YA by an author already known for heroines with size diversity.
Reviewing One to Watch, by Kate Stayman-London, forces me to confess a deep and shameful secret: I have been known to tune in to an episode or two of The Bachelor or The Bachelorette. Let me hasten to say that I am not one of what the host calls “Bachelor Nation” (ahem pretentious much?)—in fact, it’s been more hate-watching than anything—but I have, over the many surprising seasons it has continued its hackneyed formulaic road to romance, checked it out. The primary motivation for this is a complex cocktail of wanting to see the pretty people and the exotic locales, to mock the uniformly sincere expressions of all the participants who think they might have feelings for someone with whom they have spent six hours, and to marvel at the idiocy or bewilderment of the families who condone this behavior by one of their own. The primary result has been to irritate my cat, who doesn’t like it when I talk back to the television set, particularly when it’s in a scathing tone; but somehow I am as unable to resist seeing what’s going on just once a season as I am prone to wonder who will win Dancing with the Stars.
For that reason, the idea that the show would cast a bachelorette who was of a body type not seen on television unless the actress is playing a grandmother or a police chief intrigued me. A bachelorette who wasn’t a size 4? One who might actually sit down at one of those candlelit tables and eat the delectable dishes laid out in front of her, rather than spend the whole meal sipping her wine and whining about her feelings? Bring it on.
The whole concept that a normal woman—that is to say, someone closer to the American average of size 16—could be celebrated as desirable to 25 bachelors seeking matrimony is enticing, though problematic. After all, regardless of the inclusion of body positivity, the show is still set up to see romance as a cattle-call competition, with the women as prizes.
I am somewhat embarrassed to say, therefore, that I thoroughly enjoyed this book and would recommend it to someone looking for a story with a protagonist to whom they can relate: Someone who has transformed themselves on the outside but is still vulnerable and afraid beneath the surface; someone who decides she is brave enough to take a chance but who then constantly second-guesses herself based on everything that has been pounded into her by society, her family, other women, the men who have failed to requite her love, and the relentless trolls on the internet.
Bea Schumacher is a confident and stylish 30-year-old plus-size fashion blogger. She has good friends, a loving family, thousands of Instagram followers, but no romance. Her secret crush has strung her along for years, and has recently caused her to swear off men for the foreseeable future. But after she writes a blistering blog post about the show Main Squeeze (The Bachelor, thinly veiled) with its lack of body diversity or, for that matter, any kind of diversity in its legions of skinny white people going on fantasy dates, the show calls her and asks if she will be the next star. Bea agrees, but she tells the show’s new producer, Lauren, that on no account will she actually fall in love. She’s going on the show to make a point about anti-fat beauty standards, and maybe to boost her list of followers into seven figures.
Of course things will get more complicated. Of course she will be upset, confused, intrigued, tempted, repulsed, angered, and beguiled as she spends 10 weeks supposedly looking for love. But she can’t possibly let go of all her preconceived notions and believe in the HEA, can she?
The thing I liked about this book was that it turned the reality show on its ear. Yes, there were meet-cute moments and embarrassing tests and awkward interludes just like on the real-life show, but in between that, because Bea isn’t the usual fare, the bachelors (who are mostly the usual fare, either muscular and dumbly sincere or sharp, handsome, and deeply cynical), get jolted out of their complacency as she attempts to have conversations with them that don’t revolve around the typical inanities. Bea is portrayed as a real person, and she reaches out to find the real person in each of the men she ends up with after the “extras” have been kissed off. (I loved that instead of “will you accept this rose,” the woman here gives them a lipstick kiss or “kisses them off,” depending.) As on the show, you really have trouble trusting that the men are telling the truth about themselves, their feelings, and their motivations, which is compounded in the case of Bea.
I thought the author nailed the struggles of being a plus-sized woman, wavering from confident to terrified as she is confronted by the cruelty of society towards women who don’t conform to insane standards of beauty. (She also had some fun pointing out how a blind eye is turned to men in that same category.) She didn’t fall for the temptation to make her protagonist lose weight in order to find her HEA, she forced the show, the men, and the viewing public to accept Bea as she was.
The depiction of the reality TV world—the way things are manipulated to make ratings, the descriptions of the fancy wardrobe, the tensions of the timetable—were well done, as was the use of the social media inserts into the story—text messages, emails, TMZ articles, tweets, and blog posts all added dimension to the story.
Ultimately, the book does pander to wish fulfillment, but then, what did you expect? It’s a rom-com. But it’s entertainingly written and told, and does have a lot to offer about false standards of beauty and their equation with worth. So I say, a positive review.
By contrast, I became almost immediately impatient with both the author and the protagonist of Julie Murphy’s new book, Faith Taking Flight. I should have known better than to broach this book with no expectations, because I found her previous book, Dumplin’, to be full of contradictions that didn’t lend themselves to her avowed goal of advocating for plus-size teens. But the prospect of a fat girl who could fly grabbed my attention, and I jumped in with enthusiasm.
My enthusiasm quickly turned to dismay and derision as I experienced the thin plot development regarding the flying skills. Faith meets Peter, who tells her she’s been chosen to go through some kind of conversion to turn her into a superhero, because she has the potential to become a psiot. This conversation takes place at the mall. Then he tells her (alarm bells should be ringing) that she has to perpetrate a “cover” for herself over the summer—to tell her grandmother that she’s off to journalism camp. She agrees! She climbs trustingly onto a bus, goes to a secret underground facility, is locked in a room and assigned a uniform and a number, and then realizes she’s an experimental subject. Meanwhile, her granny (her guardian) sends mail and makes phone calls for the entire six weeks that she’s gone; Grandma Lou receives not one response, and doesn’t see this as a problem or institute any kind of inquiry, just assumes her granddaughter is fine? Come on. We discover later (way too late in the book) that Faith actually escapes from the facility with Peter’s help, whereupon she simply goes home and does nothing—doesn’t call the authorities, or wonder about all the other kids who were trapped there with her—she just gets a part-time job at an animal shelter, and resumes school in the fall. But this is the most unbelievable part of the entire story: She doesn’t fly! She has this ability, which would excite most of us beyond belief, and she doesn’t go out every night to try it out? doesn’t practice? doesn’t test her limits or tell her friends? No. She pulls it out when necessary (to save someone from falling off a roof, or to look for her grandmother when she wanders off, a victim of senile dementia) and that’s it. Right.
Meanwhile, we have the secondary plot, which is actually the primary one considering how much space it fills in the 338 pages of the book: The cast and crew of the teen soap opera (The Grove) with which Faith has been obsessed since childhood—to the point where she writes the premiere blog about it and publishes weekly recaps and commentary—moves its filming destination to her town, and the star of the show, Dakota Ash, supposedly meets cute with her over adopting a dog from the shelter, but then confesses that she has read the blog and knows who Faith is. Faith is over the moon (but still not literally, because not flying), and we get a lot of detail on this relationship, hurt feelings from abandoned “regular” friends as she tours the lot and has milk shakes with the star, yadda yadda. Oh, and this is the point where Faith explores the idea that she might be gay…or bi? After all, in addition to the tempting Dakota there’s also her journalism swain, Johnny….
Enter third plot: Animals (both strays and pets), homeless people, and random teenage girls have disappeared from town and no one can find them. One dog and one girl reappear, but are catatonic and provide no clues to the mystery.
So how does all of this fit together? Badly. Improbably. Unconvincingly. Incompletely. Because…there may be a sequel in the works. Yeah. Which would actually be good if it clears up any of the picked up and dropped plot points, the fuzzy background and world-building, and Faith’s inexplicable reluctance to use her friggin’ superpower! But based on this one, I highly doubt it. I discovered on Goodreads that this is a prequel novelization of a superhero from Valiant Entertainment comics. If I were the author of those comics, I would not be happy at this moment.
Before I forget, allow me to address the fat girls in the room: Murphy punts in this book as she does in Dumplin’. She gives the heroine the possibility of a romance or two in which Faith speculates, “But what could they see in ME?” and she almost lets her have it, but then pulls back to deliver the same blow fat girls always endure, when they are told that they are not special and that no one would want them. Yeah, maybe that message served the plot at that particular moment, but aren’t we all tired of the incessant battering of that already bruised spot on the fragile fat-girl ego? I know I am.
I finished the book, but I confess that it was only so I could better skewer it. Faith herself is an ebullient and somewhat refreshing protagonist, but she’s so weighed down by a thin, chaotic and nonsensical story line that she’ll never, ever get off the ground.
I woke up this morning and checked the calendar to discover that it’s International Cat Day! I must commemorate that, or Gidget and the spirits of all my house cats who have gone before will haunt me. Here, therefore is an eclectic and by no means complete list of some books that feature felines as protagonists and companions. The array of adult books seem to fall into one of two camps: The cats who solve mysteries with their human counterparts, and the cats of science fiction, who are sentient to various degrees. The children’s books celebrate cats in all ways possible from the realistic to the bizarre. These are in no particular order, except possibly by the age of the humans to which they may appeal. If you wish to find hundreds more books about cats, look here, under “lists” in Goodreads.
The Cat Who… mysteries, by Lilian Jackson Braun, in which a reporter and his cat solve mysteries. First book: The Cat Who Could Read Backwards.
The Mrs. Murphy mysteries, by Rita Mae Brown & Sneaky Pie Brown, in which Mrs. Murphy and her human companion solve mysteries. First book: Wish You Were Here.
The Joe Grey mysteries, by Shirley Rousseau Murphy, in which there are talking cats and also a human who discovers an ability to morph into a cat. First book: Cat on the Edge.
Catfantastic: Nine Lives and Fifteen Tales, by Andre Norton, editor, in which sci fi and fantasy writers tell tall tales about furry felines. (Short stories.)
The Dalai Lama’s Cat, by David Michie, in which the Tibetan Buddhist leader’s cat offers insights on happiness and meaning.
The Chanur novels, by C. J. Cherryh, in which a leonine species—the Chanur—take in a human refugee and by so doing threaten the interspecies Compact. First book: The Pride of Chanur.
The Cinder Spires books, by Jim Butcher, in which there are also cat clans and some naval airship action. First book: The Aeronaut’s Windlass.
The Cult of the Cat books, by Zoe Kalo, in which Trinity is left with a dead grandmother and a thousand grieving cats. A sort of Egyptian urban fantasy. First book: Daughter of the Sun.
Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, by T. S. Eliot, in which the author describes cats each by their distinct personality. (Poetry.) Someone should set this to music…
Millions of Cats, by Wanda Gág, in which a lonely old couple acquires companions. This is known as the original picture book for children.
The Cat in the Hat, by Dr. Seuss, in which Sally and her brother receive a visit from a madcap cat.
Socks, by Beverly Cleary, in which the cat has to learn to share his family with their new baby.
The Warriors books, by Erin Hunter, in which a house cat discovers clans of cats living in the wild in the forest…. First book: Into the Wild.
Varjak Paw books, by S. F. Said & Dave McKean (illustrator), in which a cat goes Outside and overcomes challenges.
The Wildings books, by Nilanjana Roy, in which a small band of cats lives in the alleys and ruins of Nizamuddin, an old neighborhood in Delhi, India.
The Feline Wizards series, by Diane Duane, in which feline wizards time travel to avert disasters. First book: The Book of Night with Moon.
The Cat Pack books, by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, in which brothers Marco and Polo go adventuring. First book: The Grand Escape.
The Black Cat Chronicles, by Aileen Pettigrew, in which there are cats, zombies, and magic. First book: Soul Thief.
Stray, by A. N. Wilson, in which a cat without a home tells his own rather bleak story.
Tales of the Barque Cats, by Anne McCaffrey, in which cats are essential members of the crews of space vessels…until an epidemic threatens their extinction.
The Incredible Journey, by Sheila Burnford, in which a bull terrier named Bodger, a Labrador retriever called Luath, and Tao, a Siamese cat, travel 300 miles through the Canadian wilderness to reunite with their people.